Bicycle Tour of Senegal
Mud cabins within a round reed fence
Senegal's nature is not spectacular, but the rather flat country is excellent for a trip during the winter season in the northern hemisphere. Bicycling along villages with traditional mud cabins and baobabs in the yellow grass. Along the shore one sees fishermen in brightly painted piroques, women are working the land, while men are sitting in the shade of a tree discussing world problems.
Travelogue & photos: Gerrie & Aart Dijkzeul
Here we are, at 2:30 AM at Dakar Airport: two bicycles, eight pieces of luggage, a taxi driver and nine men to help us get all our stuff in the cab. How nice of them, we think, all this help. But nothing could be farther from the truth. After what we interpreted as their voluntary help, they want to be paid. We finally succeed to escape after giving the leader of the gang 1 Euro.
The cab itself is the kind of car that at home you'd have to pay for having demolished. The hind wheels have no covers and the exhaust pipe seems to lead to the passengers compartment. But we get to our destination: Yoff, a town at 15 kilometers from the center of Dakar.
We have a short night, because the temperature starts to rise early in Senegal. After having unpacked our bicycles, which have survived the trip again, we ride them to Dakar. In short: dusty, crowded, smelly, pushy, but a paradise for our eyes. Colorful gowns, women with bundles of goods on their heads and one finds almost every kind of merchandise in the streets - from furniture to live goats.
Next day we have our first real encounter with Senegal. Sightseeing in Yoff. A strange mixture of Muslim men in sombre, long gowns and women in colorful dresses with ribbons in their hair.
People are friendly. They love to chat and are very helpful when we ask for directions. Because Senegal used to be a French colony, French still is the official language.
Most merchandise in the streets is dumped European trash: refrigerators, TVs, clothes, cars. Everything gets a second life here. With few exceptions the streets are unpaved. If the roads are like this, we better be prepared.
Dry grass and every now and then beautiful baobabs
Armed with our first experiences we leave. The first stage is 30 kilometers of highway through a suburban area, the "Hell of Dakar." It's a parking lot, with cars that exhaust more smoke and soot than all traffic in our hometown of The Hague, The Netherlands, produces in a year.
But it's quite an experience. Along most of the road is a market. Mainly live stock, which means here: goats. Wow, those animals can be stubborn. So they take their hindlegs and push them like pushcarts. Taxi vans are everywhere, high piles of luggage on their roofs, passengers pushing themselves inside. Sometimes the luggage rack on the roof is used to transport cattle.
When traffic finally gets quieter after one and a half hour, our view is unobstructed to the horizon. What we see is not really exciting: dry grass and every now and then a tree, but they are beautiful baobabs. Much sand. And to break the routine, villages are scattered here and there.
The Africa Museum isn't the only place that has mud cabins. Outside the big city they are the only houses we see.
In two days we bicycle, in the Petite Côte region, toward Foundiougne in Siné-Saloum National Park. About 90 km with almost all the time head wind and little to shield us from it. We eat lunch at food stalls along the way. Baguette. And when we ask nicely, they put some choco paste on it as well.
They wrap it in 6 months old Tunesian and South-African newspapers. We haven't seen any Senegalese newspapers so far.
The last part of our route takes us through an all but empty sandplain. There are only a few acacias. They have very sharp thorns. We find out because of two punctures shortly one after another. Fixing tyres with the sun in your neck in the middle of nowhere is a bitch.
In a picturesque little house on the water in Foundiougne we recover from the ordeal next day. We do our laundry, read, take strolls and go to bed early.
Next day we ride to Toubacouta. A route with rear wind. It is getting greener. Nice villages.
Various circular enclosures, fenced in by reed mats. A smoking fire, women who crush corn to flour and women who are doing the laundry. What the men are doing, is not clear.
After over seventy kilometers we arrive at Youssouf's camp. A nice spot with comfortable cabins and a pretty garden.
Because of frequent power failures there is no icecream
We are on our way to Banjul, the capital of Gambia. The boarderpost is like many others: money exchange, snack stands and, of course, the policepost where we get the necessary stamps after our names have been written down in a big book.
In sharp contradiction to what other travelers predicted, everything runs smoothly and fast; the policeman who stamps our passports tries in vain to talk us out of a pen or a hat.
This is a request we get quite often. We could have brought a trailer full of this kind of stuff.
Gambia, an elongate stretch of land, measuring 35x300 km, is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. The former British colony is one of the poorest countries in the world.
The first thing we notice after crossing the boarder from Senegal to Gambia is the condition of the roads. The highway to the capital looks like Swiss cheese. Fortunately, as a bicyclist, you can avoid the holes.
The ferrywe have to take just before we reach the capital is an experience. Complete chaos: trucks, herds of stubborn goats, peoples with packets and bundles of merchandise and annoying, pushy little Gambian boys who touch and climb on everything. We are saved by a friendly Gambian student who is also making a bicycle tour. Thanks to him, we board in one piece.
Banjul has a population of 50.000 and five hotels or so which I'm sure had some class sometime. There isn't much left of that. The Apollo hotel, where we stay, is delapidated. But we only need a bed and a functioning shower.
An afternoon is enough to explore most of the city. After the British left, there hasn't been much upkeep. There is no icecream, because of the frequent power outages here.
People here are also friendly, sometimes too friendly. It takes a lot of energy to get rid of the many guiding hopefuls.
Colorfully painted piroques on the beach and at sea
Next day we again leave early, back to Senegal. Passing the boarder feels like going home. The road is flat again and we are less frequently asked for money. After 80 km we enter Diouloulou in the Basse-Casamance region. We have to decide if we'll stay in the austere roadhouse with a bucket shower or ride another 25 km until we reach the coast.
To lubricate our brains, we stop at a buvette, a shed with a few plastic chairs, which serves as a bar.
We get in a conversation with a local guy with rasta hairdo and, or so it seems, a thick tongue. He turns out to be a nice guy who exploits a relatively new motel in the village. It hasn't been listed yet in the Lonely Planet. And so we end up in Kent Motel.
It has six cottages in a beautifully landscaped garden with a view of the Casamance river estuary. We spend the night in a comfortable cabin with waterwell, white cotton curtains which move in the wind and a view of a water surface over which white herons and pelicans fly. The Out of Africa sensation. Owner Leon tells us about his - recently deceased - British wife, who encouraged him to build a motel in his native village.
We spend our "day of rest" bicycling without luggage to Kafoutine. Just like every other day, in the morning the temperature is around 20 degrees, increasing to 35 degrees Centigrade in the afternoon. Great weather for bicycling.
Kafoutine is a coastal town with a few hippy-type tourists. Here it becomes clear to us that Senegal is a fishing country: many colorfully painted piroques on the beach and at sea and a lot of people involved in bringing the fish ashore and sorting and processing them.
Open plains with trees and shrubs here and there
We bicycle southward, farther into the Casamance region. It is a pretty area and we both think: typically African. Open plains, interspersed with trees and shrubs. Large termite hills and small villages. Only the giraffes are missing.
We consider if we should enter this region. After almost two years of quiet, over the last few days there have been skirmishes between the government army and the "liberation army" in which one person was killed. The liberation army is a relic of the resistance of local tribes against the French occupation. They have continued their struggle against the national government after independence with varying degrees of intensity.
We estimate that we have a better chance to get hit by a bush taxi than to run into the rebel army, so we decide to go anyway.
We tour the area for a few days. Except for the presence of soldiers, there are no signs of internal struggle here. Beach, towns. Life isn't so bad.
Tabaski is the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice. Every family slaughters a ram and spends the day eating its meat and having a good time. We taste a bit of all these activities.
This was preceded by a meeting with a group of kids in Brin. They told us that to experience Tabaski we shouldn't stay in the city, but go to small villages.
And thus we bicycle to Medina, a hamlet not on our map, but with help from local people we find it. Ten kilometers of sand path through forest, along fields and villages.
After an hour we reach Medina, where we are told that the festival starts at night. Bicylcing in the dark is not appealing, so we turn around and ride back.
On the way back, while we're taking pictures of a waterwell, a friendly lady invites us to share their meal. Before we know what is happening, we are sitting among a group of Senegalese, eating with our hands from a large plate of roasted lamb, lamb liver, onions and other ingredients.
Leaving is not an option now. First we have to see the garden with grandma. There is maniok and flowers of which tea is made. After this, we eat again; not outside, but inside in their best room, on a reed mat on the floor, on which we can drop bones and other inedible parts of the food. This time it is roasted lamb with raisins and angel hair. At 5 PM we tear ourselves away and bicycle back to Ziguinchor.
The men sit in the shade, the women work
We want to bicycle in 5-6 stages from the southwestern tip of Senegal to the southeast. The road is reasonably good, there is little traffic, but there are many Senegalese who are promenading in their Tabaski best clothes. The men wear plain colored suits, from apple-green to immaculate white, the girls and women wear colorful long skirts with tight tops and artfully braided hair. See and be seen.
Bonjour; Ca va? At least five thousand times we respond to this question by saying bonjour, waving, touching hands and sometimes stopping for a chat. By the way, stopping means being swept off your feet by a wave of curious children.
To shorten our daytrip (from 130 km to 90 km) we cut part of our route and do not use the official ferry to cross the Casamance river. We ask a Senegalese man to take us with him in his piroque. He doesn't seem eager, but with help of a friendly Gambian we succeed in convincing him to cross the river with us from Datiakounba to Banbali.
After another fifty kilometers sandpath we arrive in Sedhiou in the region of Haute Casamance, where we find lodgings in a relatively luxury place for hunters and fishermen. A sharper contrast with the dusty and grimy hamlet of Sedhiou is hard to imagine.
Next morning, after singing happy birthday in five languages, we have a luxury birthday breakfast. Aart turned 54. We leave early, to catch the ferry. It doesn't run, for obscure reasons. The local fishermen fill the gap by loading their piroques with people and cargo. When we see some bicycles fall in the water from a boat, because they were stacked too high, we rent a piroque for ourselves to cross the river, which is still about three kilometers wide here.
Three days of bicycling on quiet roads in a green environment follow. There are stores in the villages we pass on the way, but without electricity their assortment remains limited to cans of tomato paste and detergents.
The water filter, which we haven't used so far, now proves its worth in sanitizing water from the local well.
People here sustain themselves by growing cotton, rice, bananas and peanuts; they also have cattle. Vegetables are hardly grown.
At the market, tomatoes which even don't look appetizing, are sold by the piece. The peas, onions and potatoes that are served with every meal are probably imported for a large part.
It's remarkable that most men, in their good clothes, are busy discussing world problems in the shade of trees, while the women work hard to get water, do the laundry and thresh corn. Obesity is definitely not a problem here: people are beautiful, tall and walk straight.
After this we avoid tourist highlights
We have reached the region Sénégal Oriental. From Tambacounda we will take the bus to Kedougou in the far southeast. Then we'll bicycle the same route back. A little before 9 AM we're ready to board the bus.
After a short while we're told that there aren't enough passengers yet and therefore the departure is delayed to 2 PM. When it is time, Gerrie boards the bus to occupy our two reserved seats. Aart keeps an eye on the loading of the bicycles.
At 1:30 everything looks ready. The luggage has been loaded and the bus is full. At least, according to our standards. But people keep boarding. It's as if the bus is made of rubber. Planks are put between the seats to create seats in the isle as well.
And between those make-shift seats people are also standing. The temperature rises above 40 degrees Centigrade, but that doesn't bother the Senegalese. Some are wearing lined coats over their wool sweaters. Until the last minute peddlers with plastic bags of water and cake climb over the seats to try and sell their merchandise.
When the driver starts the engine at 2 PM, a taxi with a very big lady and a goat stops. The goat is put in the luggage compartment en the big lady is pushed in the bus. Senegalese do not complain very often, but some squashed passengers are really upset now.
In four hours we cover the 230 kilometers to Kedougou which we'll bicycle back starting tomorrow. But first we visit the tourist highlights of this region. First a "Bassari village" with, according to the Lonely Planet, the biggest baobab in Senegal.
We park our bicycles at the foot of the hill on which the village is. After some negotiating a kid takes us to the village via a 2 km long footpath for 1000 CFA. Not a lot of money (1.5 Euro), but at that point we don't know yet what other financial obligations are in store for us.
After a steep climb we're on the edge of the village. The guide greets everyone we meet. In a courtyard some women are working. We are invited to sit down. One of the women is topless. We haven't seen that before, so we doubt that this is the "real" Africa.
The guide asks us to pay her 2000 CFA. We are beginning to feel we're being had. That is confirmed when we are introduced to a 122 years old grandma. Her vision and hearing are perfect and also otherwise she doesn't seem older than 70. Again we have to pay. And again when we reach the tree that we came for. It doesn't look bigger than the other baobabs we saw on the way.
We've had it. We resist further attempts by the guide to pull us into another cabin, shake hands with a local or divert us from the route to our bicycles. If this is traditional Senegal, we prefer the Senegal we bicycle through every day. After this experience we skip the other tourist highlights.
Nationaal Park Nikola Koba
Hippos, monkeys, wild boar and tsetse-flies
We start on the first part of an over 500 kilometers long route in western direction. Today we get as far as Mako, where we spend the night at a camp site on the Gambia river. The owner is adament in telling us not to go for a swim: there are hippos.
We think he is joking, but he isn't. A short while later we hear sniffing and sputtering: 6 hippos who are doing what they are good at, floating in the water. Impressive to see at a distance of 30 meters from our cabin.
As in other camp sites along our route, there is no electricity. The generator doesn't work, is broken or without oil. We now understand the expression "dark Africa."
Today we bicycle 112 kilometers, of which a hundred lead through National Park Nikola Koba. No villages, no cattle, no bicyclists, only a few cars. Really quiet and deserted.
It is not clear if you are allowed to bicycle in the park. Some people say it is too dangerous because of the lions; others say the lions don't get near the main road.
Because of those stories, the atmosphere is somewhat threatening and we bicycle faster than usual. The sign "Prudence animaux sauvages" doesn't make it any better either. Our palms are sweaty.
It's a beautiful route, gently sloping and alternating open plains with savannah grass with patches of dense overgrowth. It's incredibly quiet; every time a leaf rustles we are scared.
When we stop to watch a group of monkeys, all of a sudden, at a distance of 30 meters, an animal with huge tusks crosses the road. Fortunately it doesn't mind us being there.
Several times we are scared by groups of wild boar who appear all of a sudden from the overgrowth, only - lucky for us - to flee when they see us. It is a wonderful route and one in which - in hindsight - the tsetse-flies chasing us where more dangerous than the animaux sauvages.
The next few days we bicycle north of Gambia westward. The roads are reasonably good and very quiet with few villages. The waterfilter turns out to be indispensable. We really feel as if we're away from the world. We don't read papers, because there aren't any, we don't see TV and don't listen to the radio.
Only a small part of the country is cultivated
After Tambacounda we visit Koungheul and Kaffrine, in Sénégal Central. The landscape changes gradually. It becomes drier, less green. The peanut harvest is, as far as we can see, over. In many places peanuts are processed for further transportation.
Here and there we see parts of the Saloem Delta. Dry salt lakes are used to win salt. But the overriding impression is that only a small part of the country is cultivated.
Kaolack is the first town in a couple of days with an internet café. We still have a week left. Will we travel north to visit St. Louis or will we indulge ourselves and spend a few days on the beach?
First we visit Kaolack. It is a real city (the fourth largest in the country) and the center of peanut cultivation. No glamour, no high rises and - this is getting tired - many buildings in bad repair and filthy streets.
A difference with smaller cities is that trash is collected, at least partly, in Kaolack. But lots of trash end up in the streets anyway. There are a few cozy bars and restaurants.
After four weeks we desperately need a hair cut. Until now, Aart has managed to stall a visit to the "salon de coiffure." There is no lack of them. We see a corrugated iron shed, measuring 2 by 3 meters with a sign that indicates their specialty: an almost completely shaved head. I guess it is time.
After I have instructed him "not as short as your hair" the barber asks which top-piece he should use on the trimmer. For safety reasons, I choose the largest.
For the finishing touch he borrows blunt scissors from the fabric store three blocks away. In less than 15 minutes it's done. But the result is perfect - and it costs less than 3 Euro.
We decide to bicycle to the beach in the west and not to St. Louis in the north. Except the lure of the sea, a strong northeastern wind also factors in that decision. Along our route are salt pans.
Salt water is led to isolated lakes. When the water evaporates, it gets oversaturated with salt, which then turns into big crystals. Men shovel the salt in big heaps, ready to be packaged.
By the end of the day we have arrived at a nice, quiet camp site on the beach in Mbour, on the Petite Côte south of Dakar. Two days of reading, sun-bathing, swimming and keeping people out of our hair who want to sell us something or want us to give them something: "Donnez moi votre sandales," or T-shirt or whatever it is we're wearing.
This is not specific for Mbour. On some routes it seems the standard greeting: "Donnez-moi un cadeau" or "cadeau, cadeau." Our respons varies from a polite "no" to lame jokes.
Our conversations with Senegalese about the reason for this - for Dutch standards immodest - question haven't made us much wiser.
From gold slippers to melons and wide-screen TV
Completely rested we mount our bikes and start pedalling toward Dakar, a little farther north on the coast. It is a stretch we have bicycled almost completely earlier in the opposite direction. In comparison to other cities and villages that we've visited, Dakar now looks wealthy. All streets in the center of the city are paved and reasonably clean.
Much trade and business. From gold slippers to wool sweaters, from melons to wide-screen TV, everything is available in large quantities. It is a nice city to spend one and a half day. But it is exhausting to keep all those vendors and guides at bay.
The city center is, just like the suburbs, congested with taxis and vans. Only when Senegal plays against Nigeria (in the African Soccer Championships) is it dead quiet in the streets. People are huddling together in front of shop windows with TVs or around someone with a radio. The enthousiasm when the Senegalese team scores a game-tying goal is audible all over the city.
We bicycle the last stretch to Yoff. This ends our "Tour of Senegal." We have bicycled over 2000 kms, have slept in 25 different beds and have said "Bonjour" to at least 20,000 Senegalese.